An End to Blood Drives (and Blood Shortages) in the Future? Fellows Project Seeks to Create Synthetic Blood in the Lab

An Interview with Chase O’Malley

Casey He: Please introduce yourself for those who don’t know you.

Chase O’Malley: My name is Chase O’Malley, and I am a senior here at Severn School. I am very interested in science, and I plan to study chemical engineering and entrepreneurship in college. Outside of class, I am a sailor on Severn’s sailing team, president of the Red Cross Club, and of course, I am a part of the Van Eney 09’ Fellows Program as well.

Above and left, Chase O’Malley hard at work in the lab

Tell us about the background for your Fellows project. How did you come up with this idea?

I have always been interested in science, and especially chemistry, and that curiosity led me to seek out science experiments as a kid. I can remember spending weekends in my garage exploring how car batteries work, setting up fish tanks to raise sea creatures I caught in the bay, and spending time in the kitchen exploring the thousands of reactions that happen naturally in cooking. One day, while looking into photosynthesis, I discovered heme, a compound found within blood that has a chemical structure very similar to chlorophyll in plants. I thought the connection was interesting, but I didn’t think of it again until years later, when someone very close to me was diagnosed with leukemia (essentially, cancer of the blood).

In an effort to understand their disease in greater detail, I began looking into current research on blood, and more specifically, heme, being done across the world. This was at a time when covid had essentially halted blood drives worldwide, something I had experienced myself as a member of Severn’s Red Cross club, causing global blood shortages. I quickly realized there was a huge need for blood – not just for leukemia patients in Maryland, but hospitals around the world – and my research into leukemia told me there weren’t many reliable alternatives to donated blood.

So, after some Zoom meetings with doctors in the Johns Hopkins Hospital leukemia department, as well as a molecular biology PhD graduate from Johns Hopkins University, I began to investigate one core idea: can synthetic blood be made in the lab, so people can get lifesaving blood, regardless of blood drives? It wasn’t until I became part of the Fellows Program here at Severn that I was able to thoroughly explore this vitally important question.

So, what exactly are you researching? What questions are you trying to answer, or solutions are you trying to create?

The core goal of my project is to research the biosynthesis and isolation of synthetic hemoglobin. Essentially, I am utilizing bacteria, specifically E. Coli (don’t worry, it’s a non-viral genetically engineered strain) to produce the protein inside blood called hemoglobin. This protein carries oxygen inside red blood cells and is arguably the most important protein necessary to create synthetic blood-substitutes. This process of using bacteria to make blood proteins engendered my project’s unofficial name: Bacteria2Blood, or B2B for short.

A simpler way to understand my project is to forget all the scientific terms, unnecessarily long words, and complex chemical processes, and to instead look at the core goal of the project: making blood in the lab, to help people in need. Using bacteria and genetic engineering is merely the method I am utilizing to reach this goal.

Pictured above and below: some of Chase’s lab equipment

Tell us about your process. What have you completed so far, and how much time have you put into this project, over the summer and into this school year?

This project has been extremely time consuming, but it has been well worth it. Over the summer, I completed a Scientific Literature Review (SLR). Essentially, I read through more than 100 technical graduate and PhD level scientific publications on topics including hemoglobin biosynthesis, Hemoglobin Based Oxygen Carriers (HBOC’s), and the bacterial expression of plasmids for protein purification. During this process, I took extensive notes, culminating in my end-of-summer deliverable: a 4000-word SLR detailing an in-depth dive into hemoglobin, its chemical isolation, and the current techniques for its microbial synthesis. The paper set a baseline for where the scientific community is now with its research, as well as where the community is headed. I have since submitted my paper to bioRxiv, a journal and publication archive.

After writing the SLR over the summer, I began the long process of creating a Standard of Practice (SOP). This document is meant to outline the literal steps I am taking “in the lab,” from literally measuring out milliliters of isopropyl alcohol to replicating the DNA sequence for hemoglobin. At this point, I have a completed 1500-word SOP that I constantly update as I refine and carry out each step. Outside of writing the SLR and SOP, I also created a lab here at Severn. Situated in the chemical storage room between Mr. DeMarte’s and Mr. Witzel’s rooms, I have created a space where I can carry out reactions and experiments while also storing the thousands of dollars’ worth of scientific equipment and chemicals the Fellows Program has generously funded for my project. Having this space here at Severn has allowed me to work on my Fellows Project when I am free during my otherwise very busy schedule, which has been a huge advantage throughout the entire process.

What are you currently working on? What’s next?

Currently, I am working on growing the bacteria that will end up producing hemoglobin. I am also evaluating the pros and cons of using different plasmids, as certain plasmids will be easier to work with using the PCR machine I have, and other plasmids will work best in expressing the hemoglobin DNA. In more simple terms, I am working on picking the best piece of DNA to put into the bacteria, in order to let the bacteria make the protein I want it to. Once I make this decision (which I am very close to making), I will be able to continue my in-lab steps for this project. Hopefully by the end of May, I will have achieved my end goal of producing hemoglobin!

Can you tell us about an episode during your project that you find interesting, funny, or memorable?

During my first major materials order, I spent over two hours with Mrs. Carsley writing official funding proposals for each purchase I needed to make. I had to buy chemicals, scientific machines, and just about every type of lab supplies you can imagine. But I had one purchase that was not like the rest — I had to buy live E. Coli cells from this somewhat sketchy looking scientific supplies website. As you can imagine, it took a lot of convincing from Mrs. Carsley to use the Severn credit card to buy live bacteria cells from the internet. But after a thorough explanation (and a lot of laughs) we finally put in the order — only to find out the credit card was declined! The experience was crazy to say the least, but it was great to work with Mrs. Carsley and the finance department here at Severn.

What resources or support, if any, have you received from Severn faculty? What about outside the school?

I have received tons of help from two of our upper school science teachers, Mr. DeMarte and Mr. Witzel. Both have helped me plan the project and have been amazing resources throughout the entire process. Additionally, they let me take over the chemical storage room, which has allowed me to have a space at school to do the project. So, a huge thanks to both!

Outside of the Severn community, I had support from both Dr. Lydia Li, a PhD graduate of Johns Hopkins University, and Dr. Mark J. Levis, one of the pioneers of leukemia research at the Johns Hopkins Hospital department of hematologic malignancies, during the early planning phase of my project. They both helped me define the scope of my project and encouraged me to pursue the project in a meaningful way.

What advice would you give to the underclassmen who want to do a Fellows Project?

I think my biggest piece of advice is to choose an issue that you are truly interested in, and then find a way to solve the problem through a Fellows Project. Framing your project as a “solution” rather than an “exploration” helps motivate you to keep working, even when you get super busy. Personally, staying in this mindset has really helped me stay motivated to work on my project.

I have tons of other tips and advice for anyone who is interested in the Fellows Program, so I encourage any underclassmen who are thinking about pursuing one to reach out to me at s22comalley@severnschool.com.

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